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Wednesday won't be the first step back toward national prominence for the Notre Dame football team, but it will be a significant step for the Fighting Irish.
The Notre Dame players have been immersed in winter conditioning and strength workouts for a couple of months this winter. However, on Wednesday, they'll take to the football field for the first of 14 practice sessions, which culminate with the 84th annual Blue-Gold Spring Football Game at Notre Dame Stadium on April 20 at 1 p.m.
The last time that these players put on pads and blocked, tackled, threw, caught, and ran was in the 2013 BCS National Championship game in Alabama, where they were trounced 42-14.
“Alabama was the winner by 28 points,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said back in January. “It's our job to begin work as to how we close that gap.”
The Irish coaching staff stayed intact this off-season and will head into spring football full of enthusiasm, as most believe this is a program capable of earning a BCS bowl bid next January, as well.
“Here's the great thing for me,” Kelly said. “In three short years, when I stood before our team my first year, we did not have one player on our roster that had beaten a top 25 team. Three years later, we're playing in the national Championship game with 15 plus starters coming back.
“So really excited about the progress that our program has made in a very short period of time. We know what it looks like now relative to the National Championship game, and our workouts now will be in the off season focused on getting back to that game.”
Here is a breakdown of position groups and what to look for this spring:
Key players: Everett Golson and Tommy Rees
What to look for: Golson needs to continue to show progress. There can be no resting on his laurels from a successful freshman season. Rees needs to be the smart veteran back-up that he was last season. Andrew Hendrix is essentially auditioning for – more than likely – his next program if he ever wants to get on the field, while freshman Malik Zaire will simply try to survive with the knowledge and work load increase at this level.
Key players: George Atkinson III, Amir Carlisle, Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston
What to look for: Atkinson III needs to show that he can be a featured – not spot – back. Carlisle needs to demonstrate that injuries have not slowed his ability, while Bryant and Folston need to demonstrate that the adjustment to the college game at this position isn't as difficult as some would think. Cam McDaniel and Will Mahone will add depth.
Key players: Zack Martin, Ronnie Stanley, Chris Watt, Conor Hanratty, Christian Lombard, Matt Hegarty and Nick Martin.
What to look for: Hegarty, Nick Martin or Mark Harrell to seize the center position. The only two graduated players from along the line were Braxston Cave and Mike Golic Jr., who were Notre Dame's top two performers at center. Zack Martin (left tackle), Lombard (right tackle), and Chris Watt (left guard) won't be going anywhere, but who plays center and right guard is up for grabs.
Key players: Troy Niklas, Ben Koyack and Alex Welch
What to look for: Niklas to show signs of being the next great Irish tight end. He's huge, and it is only natural (though unfair) to compare him to former Notre Dame greats Kyle Rudolph and Tyler Eifert. Kelly likes to run two-tight end sets, so Koyack needs to take the next step in his development.
Key players: TJ Jones, DaVaris Daniels, Davonte Neal, and Chris Brown
What to look for: Daniels to build on the stunning ability that he demonstrated against Alabama. Irish Nation knows what Jones is capable of. He's a solid pass-catcher, but not a game-breaker. That is where the other three aforementioned names come into play. There are balls to be caught, who wants them?
Key players: Louis Nix III, Sheldon Day, Tony Springmann, Stephon Tuitt, Kona Schwenke, Ishaq Williams, and Eddie Vanderdoes.
What to look for: How good the guys that aren't getting many reps actually are (moving Williams to end is even more daunting). Irish have almost an illegal amount of depth and talent along their defensive front. It was a strength a year ago and it will be in 2013, as well.
Key players: Danny Spond, Carlo Calabrese, Dan Fox, Prince Shembo, Jarrett Grace, and Kendall Moore.
What to look for: Who is in the middle? It could be Spond. It could be Fox (in the fall after healing from shoulder surgery). It could be Calabrese. It could be Grace. It could be Moore. It will be some combination thereof. This is what spring practice is for.
Key players: KeiVarae Russell, Josh Atkinson, Jalen Brown, and Lo Wood
What to look for: Continued development. A lot of young players saw significant time here last season and Notre Dame needs to see that experience start paying dividends (don't think about the Alabama game). Returning starter Bennett Jackson won't be in contact situations after having shoulder surgery, but next fall, he, Russell, and Wood could be this program's strongest tandem in recent years.
Key players: Matthias Farley, Austin Collinsworth, and Nicky Baratti.
What to look for: Collinsworth to be the guy he was last spring. He was a beast in spring football a year ago and got injured in training camp. Farley will be a solid starter this coming season, but he needs a partner back there. Incoming freshman Max Redfiled could be in the mix in training camp.